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Truthdigger of the Week: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

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Posted on Apr 27, 2014

    Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. AP/Patrick Semansky

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

America has a dream. It is the dream that racism went away, banished to the vaults of history by the titans of the civil rights era. As with all dreams shaped by hope, its light, reassuring mood is subject to the bitter intrusions of the waking state. And intruded it was Tuesday, when six Supreme Court justices enabled Michigan to abandon its duty to correct historical injustice by force of affirmative action in its state universities.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld an amendment passed by the state’s voters in 2006—and reversed in a federal appeals court in 2012—to eliminate race and sex as considerations in the college admission process, claiming the say in the matter properly lies with the public, rather than a judicial body.

Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Hispanic and third female member, saw the duplicity in that logic. “We are fortunate to live in a democratic society,” her 58-page dissent began. “But without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups. For that reason, our Constitution places limits on what a majority of the people may do.”

Such as, wrote the editors of The New York Times in their objection to the court’s decision, “when [the majority of the people] pass laws that oppress minorities.” The preservation of minority rights, adds Sotomayor’s opinion, “is the bedrock of our democracy, for it preserves all other rights.”

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The decision is the latest in a string of attacks by the court on the well-being of minority people. In June, the conservative justices defanged the 1965 Voting Rights Act, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change laws guaranteeing minorities access to the polling booth. The changes affected previously existing rules restricting the use of voter identification requirements. (A definitive report six years ago determined voter fraud to be virtually nonexistent.)

Further back, in 2007, the Supreme Court struck down voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. When two districts sought to maintain integration, Roberts responded, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

In her dissent this week, Sotomayor recalled those glib words by Roberts, writing, “In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”

“To know the history of our Nation,” she wrote earlier in the document, “is to understand its long and lamentable record of stymieing the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process.”

Although the Constitution “does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process,” she wrote later on, “it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently.”

The University of Michigan reports that the ban on affirmative action has already resulted in a 25 percent drop in minority representation among the state’s university-level student body, and as The New York Times pointed out, that’s “[e]ven as the proportion of college-age African-Americans in the state has gone up.”

Just as water tends to find its way around obstacles, so the desire to enhance one’s power—where power is already plentiful—tends to find ways to limit the power of others. The victory of the civil rights era drove racism underground—even CNN was compelled to criticize and confront Nevada rancher and media fascination Cliven Bundy this week after he wondered aloud whether black Americans were better off as slaves. But as ProPublica reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones has shown in a major series on school resegregation, racial communities have long been reorganizing spontaneously along lines drawn by the economy. “All-white schools don’t really exist anymore. But all-black schools do,” she told “Democracy Now!” on Wednesday. “And that’s the segregation today, is that 60 years after Brown [v. Board of Education], and really, I show through a single generation of one family, integration is gone for many students.”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent has been described in many places as eloquent. It certainly is, but we’d add to that assessment the words “morally clear.” This moral clarity, exemplified in a final passage taken from her dissent, has the power to wake those asleep in the dream of our country’s presumed inevitable progress. And it’s the reason she’s our Truthdigger of the Week.

Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grows up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from,’ regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’


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